Writer/director/fashion designer Tom Ford has certainly proven he knows how to dress up a scene and his characters. Nocturnal Animals presents multiple scenarios, be it characters at home or in the middle of something out of a Cormac McCarthy novel, which feel lovingly crafted for one to observe every detail, as if reading an intense description from a book through one’s eyes. Ideally the style does not overtake the narrative presented and while this film indeed has some strong components to tell an engaging story within the moment, I can’t help but shake a sense of emptiness. Never mind how uncomfortable some of the events in this layered revenge tale managed to make me feel, there was more a nibble than a bite when it came to the impact of Nocturnal Animals.
Multiple stories are being told in this film. A present day tale finds art gallery owner Susan Morrow (Amy Adams) receiving a manuscript from her ex-husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal). Reading the novel, we get a cinematic version which finds a husband (also Gyllenhaal) going on a trip through West Texas with his wife (Isla Fisher) and daughter (Ellie Bamber), only to be hassled on the road by a group of thugs (led by Aaron Taylor-Johnson). This story turns into a story of vengeance as Gyllenhaal’s character eventually teams up with a detective (Michael Shannon) to go after these thugs for their actions. The final story involves flashbacks that show how Susan’s marriage fell apart.
Based on the novel Tony and Susan by Austin Wright, I’d be very curious what the inspiration for this story was. This curiosity stems from trying to determine if the gritty crime story came first or the idea of a woman reading the work of her ex-husband did. There are clear reasons how the manuscript’s story connects to what Susan and Edward went through, but why a story like this? Admittedly, I was naturally compelled to like the manuscript’s story or at least be more engaged by it, because it has a visceral quality inviting me to want to keep going. Sadly, this is a very troubling tale that provides no mercy for the female characters.
Looking at this from the outside, the film has quite the elaborate framing device to get us to this story. A whole opening sequence is devoted to Susan’s life, what she does (which provides an unnerving opening title sequence), who she’s married to (Armie Hammer as a cheating husband) and how nice her home is (again, Ford relishes the details). The film frequently finds Susan pulling herself away from the novel, which means the audience is left back in her world as well. It leads to little more than her reactions to the novel, as she moves around her home or thinks back to the time spent with Edward.
That whole flashback story does not provide much more than what we could gather from some simple explanations, but the film does have two stories about Susan against one that is fictional. Basically, we should be inclined to want to know more about Susan and Edward than the book written and shared between them, but is the ‘real’ life all that interesting? For the characters it should be, obviously, but by the time Susan finishes the manuscript and the details concerning her former marriage are clear, I couldn’t help but feel like that experience was missing something.
The manuscript story is more successful. Despite the ugliness of the situation that has me wondering what kind of antics Taylor-Johnson got up to in between takes to break the tension, there is an engaging crime story here. It is not all that fresh as far as a gritty noir is concerned, but it is chilling to watch and an absorbing story within a story. Gyllenhaal is solid as a man with no clear idea how to handle himself in the initial moments and not the sort of person who ever thought he’d have to consider taking action. Shannon is great as a world-weary detective who wants to see justice for crimes so foul. Taylor-Johnson has a weird energy that makes his ugly persona far more watchable than it should have any right to be.
The elements from this story play fine and there is enough to admire in what Adams brings to her part of the film as well, but it seems like there is ultimately not a whole lot the film is trying to say. There’s a very clear reason for why Susan and Edward are not together and in having that answer to go along with a fairly straightforward narrative, it doesn’t feel like there was much to clear up by the time the film ended. Given the mood of this feature, one can consider the efforts made in something like The Neon Demon or the series Hannibal, as far as what is thematically going on, in addition to the style on display and I believe a richer experience is to be had. Here, for all of Ford’s theatrics, little of it left a cerebral mark.
If the film’s moral ugliness and empty themes left a bad taste, there is still enough to praise as far as Ford’s very competent direction. Additionally, several very good actors did come aboard a film like this for a reason and they all put in the right kind of effort to be effective in their roles. It doesn’t hurt that Ford used them as a canvas in the same way he did with his locations. There is a distinctive vision here, which I am sure will return when it comes time to deliver another story that is hopefully more impactful.